The Other Side of Animation 200: Soul Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

HEADS UP: I was able to watch this film thanks to Disney via a screener. Enjoy the review!

It all started back in September 2015. I wrote my first review of Ernest & Celestine, one of my favorite films of all time, and one of my all-time favorite animated films period. I made it a goal to cover everything out there that wasn’t Disney and Pixar. I chose to exclude those two because I wouldn’t have that much else to add to the discourse. I usually love their animated features, but I tend to dislike the ones that are the obvious bad eggs of the bunch. My goal was to talk about animated films that were under the radar or talk about the other big animated films. Well, it’s been five years, and why not break some rules? From now on, I’ll drop a review of an animated film from Disney and/or Pixar from time to time on my site. Why? Because as much as I love showing off animated films from around the world, from other companies, and introducing you all to these amazing wonders that are made by hand or by computer, sometimes, I want to indulge in what everyone else is seeing. So, how about we make this 200th review the newest Pixar film, Soul

Directed by Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers, and written by Doctor, Powers, and Mike Jones, this is Pixar’s newest animated feature and the first feature film from the company to have a black co-director and a predominantly black cast. It was originally scheduled to be released back in June 2020, but due to the pandemic, it was delayed and then controversially given a Disney+ release. Luckily, unlike Mulan 2020, it didn’t cost extra. So, was there any real worry about this film hitting the streaming service? Nope! Let’s dive in! 

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Soul follows our main character Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx. Joe is a music teacher who dreams of being a famous jazz pianist and playing with one of the big players in the music world. One day, he auditions with one of the biggest jazz musicians around, Dorothea Williams, voiced by Angela Bassett. After he succeeds in the audition, he exudes his happiness across the city until he falls into an open manhole. Through some obvious denial of dying or being close to death, Joe ends up in a realm where souls are made and get their personalities. He encounters a soul named 22, voiced by Tina Fey, who has been there for who knows how long, and doesn’t want to leave and go to earth. Joe then makes a deal with 22 that if he can find her spark, she will give Joe her patch to let him come back to life. Can Joe fulfill this fairly heady and philosophical task? Will he be able to fulfill his love for jazz? Or will Joe and 22 find something new that gives their life that spark? 

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So, from every review you may have read about this film, this is Pixar’s most mature film. It’s not mature in the sense that people swear and there is a lot of violence. That would honestly be interesting to see what Pixar could do with an actual PG-13 or R-rated film. Anyway, this is mature in the sense that the film is exceptionally heady. I mean, when you are a film about life, love, death, finding your spark, and very ethereal concepts about, well, the human experience and soul, it’s going to be not the most child-friendly tone. However, while it might not outwardly be the most approachable film for super young kids, I think everyone needs to see Soul. It’s a story that juggles a lot of these concepts, and finds incredible ways to execute the ideas given to the audience. What does “before-life” look like? Are you born with that spark? What happens when you find that spark? Is it the same goal or passion you started with? What makes you, well, you? What happens when you become too stressed out or too worn out by finding your passion? What does your soul look like when this happens? It’s a film that wants to tackle some heavy topics, and I admire the heck out of that. So many animation “fans” ask and “demand” animated films to be “taken seriously”. Well, this is the film you want then. I mean, in my opinion, animated films made in the US can be any genre, but that’s beside the point. 

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This would all be for naught if the characters didn’t work, and boy howdy do I love the cast. I think while this film can be approachable by all, it’s focused on a somewhat older audience. I think it’s amusing that we have a main character who is middle-aged. I know some people think animated films that want to be seen by kids and families should have child-like protagonists, but I disagree. You can tell stories with characters of all ages. I like that we have a middle-aged hero. It feels different. The characters have great chemistry, and I loved seeing Joe and 22 together as 22 slowly finds that spark. The film is full of multiple memorable characters, from the spirit counselors to the side characters. Even characters you see in only one scene leave an impression. One of my favorite scenes in the entire film is when Joe and 22 go to the barbershop and we meet Dez, who is voiced by Donnell Rawlings. Not only does it do a good job of adding to the overall black experience and culture, but it’s also one of the most thematically important scenes in the film. The spirit counselors are also a lot of fun to watch, and have some of the best lines in the movie. I admire that there is no real bad guy. I adore animated films that do the “there is no real bad guy, but everyone is flawed” thing. 

*small spoiler talk here*

With all that said, I know one scene may rub some people the wrong way, where 22 ends up in Joe’s body while Joe ends up in the body of a cat. I think if this was handled by any other studio, it would have looked really bad for understandable reasons. What does save this scene, and I think Kemp and Pete handle this well with making souls non-binary with no real gender, race, or sex identification. I think this is the first Pixar film to have non-binary characters. Plus, this point of the film is for Joe to see life and passion from a different perspective. However, if you agree or disagree with me on this point, that’s perfectly fine, and I get if some people may or may not get rubbed the wrong way from it.

*Small spoiler talk ends here* 

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Speaking of the cast, the voice cast is pretty great. An element that I love about Pixar and Disney animated film casting is that they don’t rely on the hype of the big names they get. They do rely on big names, but it’s never the selling point, unlike some films that make it priority number one like Rango having Johnny Depp. The cast including Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Fortune Femster, Enobia Shroff, Donnell Rawlings, June Squibb, Ester Chae, and other big names like Cody Chestnutt making small cameos, brings so much life to the story, and I admire how predominantly black this cast is. The dialogue is complex, funny, heartfelt, and real. No one is relying on hip modern lingo, or is trying too hard to stand out. 

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I’m a little shocked it’s taken this long in the review to talk about the stellar animation. It’s incredible. From the textures, the lighting, and the hair physics, the characters look incredible. I like that the design work for humans is at a point where we can make consistently good-looking humans with CGI animation. All it takes is a little elbow grease and the right art style. I love the designs for the spirit counselors, and I’m curious as to how challenging they were to tackle, due to them being essentially flat abstract lines. The worlds that they create are fully realized, and show some of the best animation and sequences out of any Pixar film. The music that is composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is full of whimsical delights, and ethereal tracks that make you feel otherworldly. Even Cody Chestnutt has a song in the film that melts my heart with love each time I listen to it. The more jazz and soul music used in the film was by Jon Batiste, and man, I adored the music from top to bottom. It’s easily one of my favorite Disney soundtracks. 

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I don’t know what else I could say. Soul is one of Disney and Pixar’s best films. I would argue it’s one of the most ambitious animated films of all time. Will I be shocked or hate anyone who doesn’t love the film? Of course not! However, if you want to join the discussion about it, I recommend watching this film and coming up with your own opinions and observations. Who knows, maybe you will find something that I didn’t notice for the first time. If this doesn’t convince you to support this film and watch it, then I don’t know what will. Well, I’m glad I decided to make this my first Pixar and Disney film to review. Now then, it’s time to go back to what I specialize in and also love talking about, foreign animation. Next time, we will be talking about Lupin III: The First

Thanks for reading the review! I hope you all enjoyed reading it! If you would like to support my work, make sure to share it out, and if you want to become a Patreon supporter, then you can go to patreon.com/camseyeview. I will see you all next time! 

Rating: Criterion/Essentials!

The Other Side of Animation 119: Early Man Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

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There is something always exciting when Aardman makes a new film. While not financially successful here in the states for some sadly understandable/annoying reasons, I always get excited, since it brings something fresh and interesting to the table, even if the films have elements that we have seen before. I make sure to always see their films, because I want to support the studio. That’s no different here, with their newest film, Early Man. Directed by Nick Park, Early Man was his first theatrical directing gig since his Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. It was released on February 16th, but is not doing well at all in the box office. It is getting positive reviews, but its financial take is discouraging. Granted, when you go against something like the important Black Panther and the decently reviewed Peter Rabbit, you are going to get into some trouble, especially if you are Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment, and you don’t market your movie! I can get into that bit of stupid, but I’ll save that for a different article. For now, let’s review Early Man!

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Eddie Redmayne plays our hero Dug, a caveman living with his tribe in a crater that, generations ago, was formed by a meteorite. He’s getting complacent about how his tribe only hunts rabbits. One day, after a successful rabbit hunt, their tribe gets invaded by a more evolved group of humans. This evolved group of individuals is led by a man named Lord Nooth, voiced by Tom Hiddleston. Dug accidentally gets himself “taken” to the new civilization, meets a woman named Goona, voiced by Maisie Williams, and finds out that his entire valley is being mined out for its metal. After interrupting a soccer game (and yes, I am going to call it soccer), Dug challenges Nooth to a soccer game. Unfortunately, Dug and his tribe don’t know how to play soccer. Dug then enlists the help of Goona, and they train to win their valley back!

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Let’s talk about the positives.  Since this is Aardman, the animation is fantastic. Each character has a unique design, and they each move beautifully. The sets are also vibrant, lush, and huge. These might even beat out The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Pirates: Band of Misfits. As with most British comedy, it’s well-written, clever, and there are lots of foreground and background jokes. I found myself laughing at multiple points in the movie, along with others in my audience. I think a lot of the jokes flew over the kids in my group’s heads, but they still laughed quite a lot. Much of the humor works because the characters are fun to be around. While some are simple, which is a problem to a degree, I never found myself getting annoyed by them. They were fairly likable. Dug is a kind optimist, the tribe leader played by Timothy Spall is delightfully daft, Nooth is a blast as a villain who seems to enjoy being a villain, Goona is the strong female archetype, and Dug’s tribe all have their own amusing moments. I know the film’s humor is mostly pun-related, but if you can execute them properly, then I don’t mind it. I can understand if it’s not your type of humor, but I loved it. They even stay away from the more modern-style of humor you would see in films from Illumination and Blue Sky Studios. It’s great that they did that, since it makes the film more enjoyable to watch as time goes by. The performances were also really good. Eddie Redmayne captures the hopeful and maybe ignorant optimistic side of Dug, Tom Hiddleston gives Nooth a wonderfully cheesy and not-at-all accurate French accent that leads to many of the film’s best jokes, Maisie Williams does a good job at being a tough individual, and the rest of the cast, including Richard Ayoade, Selina Griffiths, Johnny Vegas, Mark Williams, Gina Yashere, Simon Greenall, Richard Webber, Rob Brydon, Kayvan Novak, Miriam Margoyles, all have humorous performances.

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As much as I love Aardman and the fact we got a stop-motion film this year, I am going to criticize this film a bit. The film is, for the most part, hugely entertaining, clever, funny, and well-written. However, it does start to lose steam, when you get to the actual soccer part of the plot. It goes through a few sports clichés and puns that don’t work unless you know the sport, and it goes into sports film territory with the underdogs versus the champions. You can pick up on what’s going to happen very easily during this part. While I love a lot of the tribe members, many of them don’t get much development. About half of them get stuck with a single character trait. That also goes for the champion team that they compete against.  I also felt like the story could have been a bit more complex. I love that Aardman keeps things simple, but sometimes, that hurts them, since some of their stories become predictable. I know I can blame some of this film’s underperformance to Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment, since this should have been a big deal for their animation output, but they treated like it was just another direct-to-video animated film. However, Aardman is also partly to blame for a couple of this film’s problems. I just wonder how much better this film would have been received if they had chosen a more…world-loved sport, since the US doesn’t really care about soccer, or simply stuck with the caveman and Bronze Age civilization meet-up. I didn’t mind it being about soccer, since I caught a lot of the soccer jokes, but I know that won’t be for everyone.

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While I think I prefer Shaun the Sheep The Movie and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, I did love Early Man. Personally, it’s the first good animated film of the year, and even if you didn’t fully care about it, you know deep down, it’s going to be better than Sherlock Gnomes.  Early Man is a film that gets better the more I think about it. I definitely recommend checking it out. It’s an original film that’s not based on any pre-existing properties, and if you really want more original films to succeed, then you need to actually go see them. Well, it’s time to get to the 120th review, and I have a lot to say about that movie when we get to it. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Go See It!